LINCOLN — A legislative attempt to expand Nebraska’s Right to Farm Act, sought by farm groups to fend off lawsuits over farming-related nuisances, ran into questions Monday over whether it would grant immunity from all such litigation.
While rural senators defended Legislative Bill 227 as a way to ease fears among livestock producers when expanding their operations, a University of Nebraska law professor and a fellow lawyer, State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, said it was unreasonable to give a farming operation immunity from lawsuits from a neighbor over nuisances like odor, dust and flies.
“We’re going to say the doors to the courthouse are closed (to a neighbor),” Lathrop said. “This is fundamentally unfair and probably unconstitutional, and I gotta tell you, it’s not the Nebraska way.”
Nebraska’s current Right to Farm Act, adopted in 1982, protects long-standing farm operations from nuisance lawsuits from newcomers to a rural area. The idea is that the farmer has grandfather rights, and newcomers can’t sue over conditions that existed before they moved in.
But LB 277, which was introduced on behalf of two major farm groups — the Nebraska Cattlemen and the Nebraska Farm Bureau — would expand that immunity from lawsuits much further.
Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango, who is a farmer, said the purpose of the bill is to protect ag producers from lawsuits when they expand an existing operation, and when they use “reasonable techniques” to keep problems like “dust, noise, insects and odors at a minimum.”
Flood control bonds: The Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District could continue using bonds to speed up flood-control work under a bill advanced Monday by the Nebraska Legislature.
State Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha, who introduced the bill, said historic flooding across Nebraska last month highlighted the importance of the measure. The NRD has issued $70 million in bonds over the past decade for six projects; an additional eight projects are in the queue.
NRD-built reservoirs and levees were critical in keeping floods at bay along Papillion Creek while the Western Sarpy Clear Creek Levee project along the Platte River helped contain the flooding around Omaha well fields.
The Papio-Missouri River NRD is the only one in the state with bonding authority. State lawmakers originally granted that authority for a 10-year period, starting in 2009. That authority is set to expire at the end of this year.
Lindstrom’s original version of Legislative Bill 177 would have extended the authority another 10 years. A Natural Resources Committee amendment, adopted by lawmakers, extended the authority for five years, until 2024.
Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango, the committee chairman, said the five years should allow the NRD to accomplish all of its planned projects. He said the property tax levy needed to pay off the bonds would have to fit within the state-mandated 4.5-cent levy limit for NRDs.
“It’s not about giving them more spending ability,” he said.
But opponents said defeating the measure would give property taxpayers a bit of relief. Sen. Bruce Bostelman of Brainard argued that the NRD should save up money until it had enough to do a project, rather than financing it through bonds.
“I think they can build these dams and they can do it the right way,” he said.
Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard said he believes that the projects were being proposed to benefit developers and recreational interests.
Opioid abuse: Nebraska lawmakers are moving ahead with additional steps designed to protect the state from the national opioid drug epidemic.
Lawmakers gave first-round approval Monday to LB 556, which would add new requirements for the state’s prescription drug monitoring program.
The changes are intended to help health officials better track what prescriptions patients have received and prevent them from getting multiple prescriptions from multiple providers for highly addictive drugs.
Nebraska hasn’t been hit as hard by the opioid abuse epidemic as other states, and lawmakers say they want to remain proactive to keep the problem from spreading.
Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, whose sister died of a prescription opioid overdose in 2009, sponsored the bill.